At 2:30am on the morning of March 23, 2008, a desperate distress signal rippled through the darkness, frantically triggered from a position 125 miles off the coast of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. A massive, 192-foot fishing trawler, the F/V Alaskan Ranger had suffered catastrophic rudder failure, and suddenly the ship went from the business of harvesting delicious Alaskan King Crabs to the business of royally getting the crap kicked out of it by one of the most inhospitable aquatic shitstorms on the planet Earth. Stranded out in the middle of the Bering Sea, without any propulsion, and taking on huge amounts of water while simultaneously being gangbanged by twenty-foot waves, fifteen mile an hour winds, and whipping rain so intense it made the already-miserable visibility even shittier. As the deck was rocked like that scene at the beginning of Last Crusade, and water pouring in through the bilge tank engine rudder room (I don't know anything about boats), it was rapidly becoming blatantly obvious that the Alaskan Ranger wasn't going to be sailing home under her own power any time soon, and that the 47 crewmen on board were going to have to figure out alternate transportation back to shore if they ever wanted to live long enough to catch crabs again.
Now, the United States Coast Guard catches a lot of shit from people who crack a ton of HILARIOUS jokes about their viability as a branch of the American armed forces and their propensity to refer to navy beans as "Coast Guard Beans" (they seriously do this), but I'll tell you one thing – when you're doggy-paddling through sub-freezing Arctic waters clinging to a broken-off piece of flotsam without a coastline or a lifeboat anywhere in sight, you learn to appreciate the men and women of the Guard pretty fucking quickly. And when the searchlights of a pair of USCG rescue choppers began to appear through the darkness, scanning the rain-swept wreckage of Alaskan Ranger, you can bet your phaseolus vulgaris that the helpless fishermen bobbing around in the water gained a whole new respect for the dudes rolling in to bail their asses out out.
A boat getting rocked by 15-foot seas in the Bering Sea.
I need a Dramamine just to look at this nonsense.
As 23 year-old Aviation Survival Technician (second class) Abram A. Heller arrived on site, the young Petty Officer looked out from the deck of his HH-60 helicopter to see nothing but total goddamned anarchy below him. The Alaskan Ranger had gone bow-up in the water, Titanic-style, and although it was slowly disappearing below the waves, you could still see wreckage and debris strewn about the entire crash site in every direction. As searchlights probed the black waters, Heller could see dozens of sailors flailing around in the sea – 25 of the 47 men on board Alaskan Ranger were unable to get to life rafts in time, and had been forced to jump from the deck into freezing-cold water – and those men lucky enough to survive the system shock associated with plunging into what is essentially a gigantic bucket of ice were now desperately clinging to whatever crap just so happened to be floating around near them.
Petty Officer Abe Heller knew what he had to do. This guy was a balls-out Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer, sworn to save lives at all costs, and his borderline-insane job was to voluntarily leap out of a hovering helicopter armed only with a snorkel and a life vest, fall twenty feet through the air, splash down into pitch-dark, ice-cold water loaded with dangerous debris and sharp objects, and manually extract as many men as he could out of the water before they (or he) died of hypothermia and exhaustion.
Oh yeah, and it was only this guy's second non-training rescue jump.
Out you go. Have fun, buddy.
That's not to say Heller was just some asshole jumping out of a helicopter for funsies or something. The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program is not a fucking joke – of the 100 or so guys who take the 18-week training course each year, roughly 80% of candidates wash out, and the 20 guys who pass it usually only do so after they've somehow survived a couple occasions where they nearly drowned during a training exercise. This is a program designed to train you to become part merman, part airborne infantry, part combat medic, and part Sean Connery from Thunderball.
But there's also undoubtedly a big fucking difference between training for a rescue jump and navigating the ultra-dangerous wreckage of an Alaska fishing trawler while a couple dozen peoples' lives hang in the balance. Yet here Abe Heller was, freestyling his way through the goddamned Arctic Circle, braving 15-mile an hour winds with a wind chill of -24 degrees Fahrenheit (-33 Celsius / 240.38 Kelvin for you Europeans/scientists out there), fifteen-foot waves, dangerous fishing hooks and shit floating around just below the pitch-black surface of the water, and whipping precipitation that alternated between freezing rain and snow flurries. Do you have any idea how much it sucks to be getting fucking snowed on while you're swimming in the ocean, and then hammered with a friggin' wave the size of Optimus Prime? I have no frame of reference here, but I can only imagine it bites a giant ass. It's like being waterboarded by God.
But Abe Heller's job was to get as many people out of this miserable vortex of nautical ass-sucking as possible, and he wasn't going to let something like "not being able to feel anything below his waist", "getting bitch-slapped by Poseidon" or "constant threat of hypothermia" stop this guy on his mission. Within minutes of hitting the water, Heller had already made his way to a stranded swimmer (who, by the way, hilariously responded to Heller's question, "how are you doing?" with the phrase, "I'm fucking freezing!") and dragged the dude over to the helicopter winch for extraction.
Now, the crazy shit about rescuing dudes on the winch is that first you strap them into the mechanism, and then you hold on for dear sweet life as the two of you are lifted up out of the water together by a crane attached to a helicopter. Then, once the dude is safely en route to GET TO DA CHOPPA, the rescue swimmer lets go of the shit and drops back down to the water to look for more people.
This insanity alone sounds like it should qualify as some kind of extreme sports or something, but for Abe Heller, it was standard operating procedure – he went through this not only after he rescued the first guy, but then he did it again after he went back, braved 15 foot waves and navigated the near-pitch darkness two more times, and pulled another pair of guys out of the water to safety.
But saving the first three lives was the easy part.
19th century painting of an equally-miserable Arctic storm.
When Heller got a little closer to the disintegrating remains of Alaskan Ranger's hull, he encountered two more hapless sailors in desperate need of his immediate awesomeness – both these poor suckers had gotten themselves entangled in the fishing nets when they abandoned ship, and now were slowly being sucked down with the ship – all while being punched in the face with a few thousand gallons of salt water. Heller knew if didn't get over there and do something fast these guys were going to be spending the latter part of their morning eating breakfast with the Kraken.
So Heller hauled ass over there, careful to avoid dangerous flotsam along the way, and managed to cut the first guy out of the ropes and haul him back to safety. Then he quickly sprinted back (this is the fifth time he's done this, for those keeping score at home), and grabbed hold of the next guy – this dude was only partially entangled, but he had an ice-cold death grip on the rigging and Heller had to freaking pry the guy's frozen fingers open until he let go of the ropes and allowed Heller to haul this guy all the way back to the chopper.
But this time, there was a problem. The HH-60 helicopter only has room for five passengers, and Heller had just saved five men from horrible, ice-cold drowning deaths. So, not wanting to take a seat from a half-dead, mostly-hypothermic dude, Abe Heller made the sort of decision that undoubtedly qualifies him as an unquestionable badass – he told the pilot to go back without him. He'll just chill at the crash site for a while
That's right – the guy who had just spent the last hour or so swimming full-speed through ungodly choppy, sub-freezing waters (usually while dragging another human being behind him) decided he'd stay behind for an hour and brave the -27 wind chill and 15-foot waves in a fucking inflatable rubber life raft while his buddies dropped off the recently-rescued survivors.
So long guys. Hurry back.
But Abe Heller didn't just sit out there for a full hour, soaking wet, in miserable weather conditions that had just sunk a full-sized Alaskan fishing trawler. He found a way to stay busy.
When the USCG helicopter returned to pull Heller from the wreckage, they found him sitting in the life raft with three more men he'd just pulled from the debris – including a 300-pound unconscious Samoan guy it took Heller ten minutes to hoist into the raft. While he was waiting for the rescue helo to return, Heller had been also kept himself occupied by providing first aid to the wounded (all rescue jumpers are trained EMTs) and doing everything in his power to keep the hypothermic survivors alive and conscious.
All told, 42 of the 47 men on board Alaskan Ranger were rescued by the Coast Guard in a daring operation that took roughly two hours. Rescue Jumper Abe Heller, in only his second "live-fire" mission, put his own life on the line and personally saved the lives of eight men by himself. For his heroism, he was awarded the 2009 International Bravery at Sea Award, and got a certificate for "Exceptional Service Rendered to Mankind," which, admittedly, is a pretty badass certificate to have hanging in a frame on your wall.
Kind of like this, but with less Kevin Costner.
USCG Award Citation
IMO Award for Bravery at Sea Alaska Ranger
FV Alaska Ranger
Thompson, Kalee. Deadliest Sea. HarperCollins, 2010.